The Great Famine and Today’s Famines

Many Irish people today draw comparisons between the horrors endured by the Irish Famine victims in the 1840s and the plight of the Third World poor in our own times. It is tempting to see a link between the generosity of ordinary Irish people towards the victims of disasters such as Biafra in the early 1970s, Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s or Somalia in the 1990s, and Ireland’s own sad past.
Are we in some sense repaying the generosity of those who were good to Ireland in the 1840s. Or are we somehow exorcising our own past, making amends for those who died for the lack of help at home long ago?
I believe that if the sufferings of half-forgotten, wretched Irish Famine victims can inspire greater concern for the Third World today, then they may not have died entirely in vain. Yet history never quite repeats itself, and the contexts of Ireland’s Famine and those of modern African famines are quite different.
First of all, today’s famines are less murderous than the Great Famine. About a million died directly as a result of the potato failures in the 1840s. By comparison, the Sahel famine of 1973 killed perhaps one hundred thousand in an area inhabited by twenty-five million. In Ethiopia in 1972-4 about two hundred thousand are held to have died out of a population of twenty-seven million. Ireland’s Famine then, was a ‘great’ Famine.
Secondly, unlike Somalia and the Sudan in the 1990s, Ireland faced no civil war or major unrest in the 1840s.
A third difference is that in today’s famine-stricken areas, neighbouring regions or countries tend to be nearly as poor as the region directly affected. But one of the remarkable things about the Irish Famine of the 1840s is its geographical setting : it occurred in the back-yard of that prosperous region, ‘the workshop of the world’.
Nor, fourthly, is the philosophical context the same today as in the 1840s. This is an important point. During the Irish Famine, the first editor of The Economist, James Wilson, answered Irish pleas for public assistance with the claim that ‘it is no man’s business to provide for another’. He asserted that official intervention would shift resources from the more to the less deserving, since ‘if left to the natural law of distribution, those who deserved more would obtain it’.
But if ideology can exacerbate famines, how can bureaucracy relieve them? History suggests that good government can help avert famines. The bureaucratic delays so often a feature of African administrations were hardly a constraint in the Irish context. In Ireland the problem was less institutional than ideological. It is often said of modern famines that they are less the product of food shortages or poor harvests per se than a lack of purchasing power.
One of the most evocative images of the Irish Famine is of a people being left to starve while their corn was being shipped off under police and military protection to pay rents. Crudely put, poverty in the midst of plenty.
The Famine replicated and magnified graphically the hardships and exploitations at the heart of Irish society. However, this enduring, populist image of the Irish Famine as starvation when there was enough food to go around is an oversimplification. It ignores the sheer gravity of the potato failure which produced a shortfall of one-third or so in calorie production three years in a row. Dwelling on the exported grain ignores the reality that during the Famine grain exports were dwarfed by imports of cheaper grain, mainly maize.
Mass emigration is another legacy of the Great Famine, and one that also distinguishes it from modern Third World famines. All famines induce people to move in search of food and to escape disease. The Famine emigration was different to what had gone on before; probably the poorest of the poor died, lacking the funds and the knowledge to emigrate, while many of those who could scrape together the funds, or who were compensated for giving up their smallholdings, left.
Another important feature of the Irish Famine is that it was a very long-drawn out affair. Beginning in the summer of 1846 with the second and near total failure of the potato crop, Lord John Russell’s Whig government declared it over in summer 1847.
A recurring critique of the international aid community, to quote Trócaire emergency officer, Niall Tobin, is that it ‘goes in with emergency relief, declares early victory and leaves’. The crisis sparked off in Ireland by the potato blight did not end in the summer of 1847. Famine conditions lasted for a long time after.
Ireland’s catastrophe was the product of three factors: a backward economy, bad luck, and the ideology briefly mentioned above. This raises the question, how poor was Ireland in the 1840s compared with, say, Ethiopia and Somalia today? However, we know that Irish living standards on the eve of the Great Famine lay somewhere between Ethiopia’s and Somalia’s today.
As for bad luck, traditional accounts explained the Famine as the inevitable product of over-population. The Irish poor themselves, deeply religious and bewildered by what had hit them, were sometimes inclined to see the failure as God’s revenge for earlier improvidence.
Half a century ago, useful second-hand reminiscences of the Famine might still be had from old people throughout Ireland, particularly from Irish speakers in the worst affected areas in the south and west. Unfortunately, not enough people, least of all historians, wanted to listen and record. Local memories are now much vaguer, and physical evidence of the Famine’s ravages is scarce.
Unless the horrors of the 1840s are given their due, a more tourism friendly and sanitised version of this ugly chapter in Irish history is on the cards.
The resulting amnesia has rid the Irish psyche of what was most troubling and traumatic about the 1840s: neighbours and relations being buried hurriedly and without ceremony, clearances and house burnings, thieving on a massive scale, and strife about the scant food supply.
Finally, if Irish attitudes to Third World famines are to be informed by our own Famine, what can the Third World tell us about the Great Famine? One message, perhaps, is that though aid can achieve much, how difficult it would have been to avoid all mortality in the 1840s. Yet the effect of the timely purchase and distribution of cheap food by the authorities is also a reminder that more could have been done along these lines for Ireland in late 1846 and early 1847 by buying up and redistributing domestic stocks, before large quantities of grain could be obtained abroad and processed for consumption.
Today’s famines are a reminder of the pain endured by our own Irish poor in the 1840s, a pain sometimes downplayed in, or left out of, historical accounts.

©: Cormac Ó Gráda, Professor of Economics, University College, Dublin. This article, reproduced from the Dublin Heritage Group’s Famine Times (January, 1997), is an edited version of the essay of the same title in 'The Great Irish Famine', ed. Cathal Pórtéir, RTÉ / Mercier Press, Dublin, 1995.
We are grateful to the author and to the Dublin Heritage Group for permission to reproduce it.

Published in The Green Dragon No 3, June 1997.